Librarians helped tame Wild West


John Dixon, The Associated Press

By Christine Des Garennes

URBANA, Ill. – A timid, hair-wrapped-in-a-bun, pince-nez-wearing spinster.

Is that the image you have of a librarian from 100 years ago?

Try this one on instead:

Gun-toting, horseback-riding, walk-2-miles-to-work-in-a-blizzard type of woman.

Those were the kind of librarians who settled the West.

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    Around the turn of the 20th century, graduates of the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science (then called the Illinois Library School) headed to places like Texas, North Dakota, Idaho and Oregon.

    Lisa Renee Kemplin, senior library specialist at the University of Illinois, looks through Ida Kidder’s 1908 letter from Salem, Ore., at the Archives Research Center in Urbana. The letter and other documents catalog UI librarians’ trips to the West 100 years ago.

    “These women had such a spirit of adventure,” said Betsy Hearne, professor emeritus with the library school. “They were determined to be where the action was.”

    Hearne shared stories about the early graduates of the library school for a short video broadcast on the Big Ten Network. Using information gathered in Liz Cardman’s 1996 doctoral dissertation, “Interior Landscapes: Personal Perspectives on Professional Lives: The First Generation of Librarians at the Illinois Library School, 1893-1907,” Hearne, who is also a storyteller, spoke about graduates establishing libraries in places where, in some cases, they were the only librarian within a 130-mile radius or the only single female in town.

    Not only were the graduates going to new places, they were entering into a totally new profession: librarianship, Cardman said.

    “They were pioneers in both senses of the word,” she said.

    At a time when there were no phones or nearby libraries, the women corresponded with the library school’s leaders about the places and people they encountered and the challenges they faced in their jobs. A former graduate assistant who worked in the University Archives, Cardman said she was interested in women’s history and the early history of the library profession, and she also was familiar with the “richness” of the UI Archives and the many letters and photographs saved from this time.

    Until the latter part of the 19th century, libraries were primarily private places, she said. But thanks to Melvil Dewey and Andrew Carnegie, in the late 1800s and early 1900s “public libraries were just exploding and they needed librarians,” Cardman said.

    The idea was, “you can’t have a democracy without access to information,” Hearne said.

    At the time, the only careers open to women were either teaching or nursing. Social work, along with librarianship, were emerging fields.

    The Illinois Library School “seeded the West with librarians,” Hearne said.

    New librarians received support from the then-head of the library school, Katharine Sharp and her predecessor, Frances Simpson.

    Sharp was “the one who lit the fires under them,” Cardman said. She helped graduates see themselves as pioneers, as missionaries. “She really instilled in them an incredible zeal to go out and spread the benefits of libraries.”

    Hearne read stories of graduates who would, after a fire, start a new library in a gym; who walked through 8- to 10-foot snow drifts to get to the library; and who brought books to World War I soldiers recuperating in hospitals.

    “The librarian was a kind of apostle for culture. They were missionaries for literacy, knowledge and culture,” Hearne said.